The last time we road tripped together, the windshield wipers provided a tempo to our travel. This time around, we mostly stewed in the hot desert sun longing for some rain. When the rain did eventually start — 1,097 miles into our trip as we drove north toward home — we cheered it along. Perhaps it would loosen some of the bug residue built up on the windshield that sheltered us.
A good chunk of my life has been spent driving across desert terrain. I grew up in Colorado, but my large extended family resided west in California. Being one of four, it usually made most sense to drive to visit them, my parents loading us into our old red Ford Aerostar van named Ruby and crossing Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and the northern slice of California to arrive in the Bay Area. We weren’t the rambling sort, instead opting to drive all of the nearly 1,300-mile journey in one stretch. Only a 17-hour trip if you really believe in yourself. At least once a year during the course of our childhood we would make this drive, waving to the likes of Cheyenne and Salt Lake City, reeling past Reno, and feeling our excitement grow as we crossed into the Sierra Nevadas for our final approach into San Francisco. We stopped only for gas, to use remote and sometimes alarming rest areas, and to eat 50-cent ice cream cones at Little America.
I believe this somewhat maniacal family habit still inspires our adult travel adventures. Which is why my sister and I found ourselves at the beginning of May attempting a tour of the southwestern part of the United States with only three days dedicated to the feat. Three days to leave Denver, jaunt through Moab, Arches National Park, the Grand Canyon, walk the avenues of Williams and Flagstaff, Ariz., and then tour the southern corner of Colorado. Three days. No problem.
The key to such road trips is to leave before the sun rises. And caffeine. You pack a lot of caffeinated beverages — the strong stuff for me (coffee, Red Bull, etc.) and the less punchy stuff for my sister (Cherry Coca Cola, the beverage which propelled us and our third roommate through college) — load up on the snacks, and prepare to do a sun salutation in two or three hours. Grand Junction brought us much needed breakfast, a farewell wave to Colorado, and before long we diverted from our traditional route due west, and turned south toward Moab, Utah.
With our limited time, we had efficiently mapped out our must sees: Arches National Park, Monument National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, (basically any location that would make Theodore Roosevelt swoon), with quick visits to ye old cowboy towns of Arizona for some extra flair.
At the Arches National Park Visitors Center, we turned to a computerized guide to give us an idea of how long we might want to spend in the park. “How much time do you have?” It asked. We looked at each other and shrugged, “One hour?”
We were only six hours into our drive to that night’s final destination: Williams, Ariz. Halfway. Six hours left to go before our heads could fold into our (hopefully) plump and soft hotel pillows.
The visitor’s computer did some quick calculations and revealed that with our budgeted one hour of flex time we could become sufficiently acquainted with the parking lot. To drive the entire park, and maybe get out for a quick walk around a rock structure or two, would take upwards of four hours.
Cheeky little machine. “Well, fine,” we declared, “we’ll see how far we get.”
If you travel anywhere along the main loops of Yellowstone National Park, it is no longer necessary to bring a map or tour guide. Simply stop whenever you see a fleet of mismatched family vehicles parked precariously along the side of the road and you are sure to see all the most famous (and most easily reached) destinations. The same seemed to be true at Arches. This method is certainly not the most profound way to visit any natural or man-made wonder, and it is certainly not a preferred method of acquainting myself with a new place, but with our limited time we mostly followed suit.
An hour later our hour was up. Because that’s how time works. But we elected to stay a little bit longer, schedules be damned. Our appetites for Arches were barely whetted and we desperately wanted to hike along some trails to get up close and personal to the rock feature wonders. The air was hot and dry, and the land beckoned to us. Sadly the demands of our time pieces demanded more urgently. And so on we moved.
The second key to such road trips is to have more than one driver ready to roll. Switching off gives the mind and fatigued concentration much needed rest. It’s the same principle behind pilots having copilots. The copilot is on standby to jump to the controls if the pilot comes down with food poisoning, or so say the powers that be in Hollywood.
Shortly after leaving Arches and venturing through Moab where we made a much-needed Slurpee run to 7-Eleven (an aside: you can almost always find a 7-Eleven in all the towns you come across, embrace the fabulous Slurpees), Emily took over driving duties and I fell asleep.
“Anya, we’re here.”
“Here” was Monument Valley.
On one hand, driving through the valley you felt like there had never been a more genuine and authentic piece of Earth as this place. On the other hand, you felt like you were viewing a martian landscape. Hushed, reverent. Wild. Beautiful.
If a herd of wild horses were to run by it would be the most natural addition to the landscape imaginable. Even better would be to saddle up your own horse to explore the land and breathe in the air more fully.
We pulled to the side of the road and inhaled the scene as best you can from the sidelines, then vowed to return and continued on.
Our entry point to the Grand Canyon — the ultimate destination on this voyage and the impetus that got us planning — was the little town of Williams, Ariz.
It sits on a stretch of the historic Route 66 and is as cheesy as one could hope. Neon is not in short supply on these avenues. We explored Main Street, taking note of all the Elvis statues and keychains/magnets/sweatshirts/et cetera forever merchandise touting the Route 66 distinction. It was a stark contrast between the ancient natural monuments we had thus far witnessed and this hyped praise for a long ago, man-made triumph that served its purpose and was later decommissioned to be replaced by newer infrastructure.
We saw what there was to see and hit the hay; we were ready to see the Grand Canyon.
My one disappointment with our visit to the Canyon was the total lack of mule interactions. We didn’t pet or even wave to a single mule while on the cusp of this magnificent landscape. However besides that small failing, our trek to the south rim was worth every hour on the road.
Standing there looking at the expanse before you is a little bit like jumping into a chalk painting a la’ Mary Poppins. It seems unreal, like it may just be a masterful rendering from a healthy imagination, but then you walk tentatively forward and you’re liable to slide right down the edge all the way to the Colorado River one mile below.
(Oh selfie sticks.)
(No selfie stick required when you have a travel companion to do it for you. Then again, it wouldn’t be a selfie then would it.)
(Amendment: No selfie stick required when you have a helpful park ranger on hand. Then again, still not a selfie.)
(She’s making that face because she hates when I make her be in my photos. Even so she always complies with my requests to photograph her; she’s a good sport that way.)
The layers, the colors, the sheer size, the manner in which such a canyon could even be formed, it’s truly remarkable. As stated by John Wesley Powell: “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”
One more night in Arizona and it was time for us to head back home to our Colorado.
Road trips of this nature — covering so much land in such a short amount of time — are by definition transitory, and admittedly a little removed. You watch the world zoom by at 60 MPH, rolling by just feet below your seated self, road tunes on the radio providing the tempo and soundtrack to your travels. With the constraints of time we had no real option of immersing ourselves at any one destination. A bit like an appetizer sampling platter, we got mere tastes of several different places.
At some point the thought occurred to me that maybe we shouldn’t have been as ambitious as we were. That we should have picked one park to visit, one location, probably one not as far away as the Grand Canyon. Or perhaps we should have waited until we secured more vacation days to embark on this endeavor and chain together a longer trip.
But then I considered all the many things that we say we will do “when we have enough time.” Oh the places we will go. And for better or worse, now and then you just have to actually do it. Forget the lack of perfection. Forget the reasons it would be better later. Just take the time you do have and make the best adventure you can.